The weary soldier sauntered toward his barracks, exhausted from the humid jungle air, barely able to breathe under the weight of his surroundings. His skin glistened in the dim light that scattered throughout the base camp. He passed a dark man leaning back in a chair, an M-16 draped across his lap.
“Ronnie V., how was it out there today? Another beautiful day in Nam’. You stay hydrated and keep those feet dry?” the man asked from the shadows.
“Roger that, Sgt. Thompson. Keep ’em clean and dry. We pulled no punches out there and got a lot done, built half the structure,” Ron proudly responded. He liked Sgt. Thompson, and worked hard to earn his respect. The Seargeant was tough and knowledgeable, always looking out for his men and giving them the confidence to show bravery while being smart and alert. Ron had learned many lessons from Thompson—one of the few black people he had ever met. That, in itself, was an interesting experience for a farm boy raised in a forgotten railroad junction in rural Pennsylvania. This trip across the world to Asia was his first time away from his family.“You know what you’re doing, Ronnie V. It’s nice to have a leader like yourself. That’s why you’re an E-Five now—and steady rollin’.”
Ron laughed a little. He loved Sgt. Thompson’s style.
“Yes, sir. Steady rolling,” Ron said.
Sgt. Thompson’s smiled. “Try to get some sleep. Looks like you could use it... Not to unnerve you any more than we already are, but VC is creeping along the perimeter. No tellin’ what they up to.”
“Roger that, Sarge,” Ron responded, as he stepped into the barracks.
A single light bulb swinging from the ceiling gave enough light for Ron to find the comforts of his cot. It was a paradise, for now. He dropped his rucksack and canteen in a pile and lay down on the vinyl cushion. As much as he wanted to kick off his boots, he didn’t have the energy. Staring at the ceiling, one leg stretched out, the other leg hanging over the side, his brain took in simple observations like the swinging bulb. Just enough to keep from focusing on potential fears and hazards outside the barracks.
Ron thought about the army, being a combat engineer, and the feeling of being purposeful and accomplished; the camaraderie of a job site produced comfort and stability in an otherwise unpredictable place. His team respected him for his ethics and desire to take on any project or mission. Smiling, he enjoyed a brief moment of contentment. However, this was interrupted by the memory of the day they called his number and the image of the draft notice in his trembling hand. His mind raced about the soldiers he knew who returned home in flag-draped coffins from the killing fields of Vietnam. The prospect was daunting. He looked to his father, a former tank sergeant in World War II, who simply said, “It’s your turn.”
The bulb swayed back and forth, and Ron’s idea of trapping it in a box for safety’s sake would have to wait. The bulb’s current ability to hypnotize the tired soldier’s mind was too welcoming to his soul. His eyelids slid down like garage doors.
The sound threw him out of bed. He hit something that tore at his shoulder when he landed belly-first on the floor, his forearms covering the back of his head, fingers digging into his own shoulders, pulling at the wounded skin. It burned in the darkness, the swinging bulb having been broken by percussion.
Ron’s initial thought was to slide under the cot, lay there, and not move. Just hide until it is over. However, that choice was one he could never live with, even if it meant dying.
“Ronnie V.! Ronnie V.! Where are you at? You OK? Where are ya, son?”
The terrified soldier knew that voice. He took a deep breath and sprung to his feet.
“Right here, Sarge!” Ron yelled as he moved toward him.
“Outside! Get on the 50-cal and lay fire to these bastards! They’re dropping mortars, and a few are about to breach the gate!” Sgt. Thompson dished the orders to Ron and exited the building in less than a heartbeat.
Ron, fortunate to have left his boots on, dashed to the bunker; the strap of his M16 draped around his shoulder, where it had been for most of the day. He always kept his rifle very close.
The young GI scurried up the sandbag bunker to the timbers that anchored the .50-caliber machine gun and gripped the handles of the massive piece of firepower. He placed his fingers on the triggers and took aim. Another mortar dropped twenty-five yards from him, bursting a large hole in the sandbags of an adjacent bunker. Sand and shell fragments sprayed, ripping at the eyes and faces of nearby soldiers.
The army’s spotlights snapped on, sending bright streams of light along the walls of the camp. Shadows of Vietcong soldiers maneuvered through the trees and open spaces, their distinctive umbrella-shaped hats the best targets.
Ron pulled the trigger and the massive gun reeled back and smashed around out through its barrel. The power was substantial, and Ron had never fired a weapon of this size. He thought of Carol, his girl back home who had been writing him. He couldn’t wait to tell her about it the next time he wrote. If there would be the next time. He could almost hear her voice hollering his name.
“Ron! Ron!” someone yelled.
He didn’t look around, just kept firing, the power of each shot diminishing his fear, the large casings burning red as they discharged. Fighting was hot and furious as VC continued to pour into the vicinity, determined to push the Americans from their land.
Ron watched as one of his rounds made contact and tore a Viet Cong in half, the fighter’s thin body pulled apart like ripping paper. The visual burned into his mind and part of him could not believe what he did to another human being. Nothing matters now, just keep firing, he thought. His index finger pulled the trigger several more times. Then it stopped. His finger pressed, whitening around the metal. Jammed. It’s goddamn busted.
“I’m jammed! I’m jammed!” he yelled. His fear returned. He slammed at the slide, but the heat swelled everything, rendering the gun temporarily useless. His muscles flexed as he worked away at the gun.
“Ron! Ron!” the voice yelled again.
Sgt. Thompson jumped onto the bunker, unintentionally pushing Ron to the side. He grabbed ahold of the slide. “Pull that trigger as hard as you can when I tell you!” he ordered. The young soldier nodded.
“Now!” the sergeant hollered. He worked the slide. Nothing.
“Damned gun. Try again!” Thompson said.
Again, nothing. Ron felt better with his sergeant next to him, but the mortars were falling louder and closer with each passing second. The return fire was effective, but men were being blown up with small-arms fire, and death and destruction were closing in around them.
A few snipers scattered in the trees made everyone a potential target. The two American soldiers tried several more times, sweat pouring off them, their soaked green tank tops matching under heavy helmets.
Snap! The gun broke free, and a shell fired into the jungle without aim.
Ron gripped the gun again, relieved and scared all at once. He screamed and fired away.
“Ron! Ron!” the voice shouted his name again.
Ron looked over at Sgt. Thompson, but it wasn’t his voice. Whose voice is that? Where’s it coming from? Fear and confusion boiled within him, not understanding what was happening. He looked around and saw darkness, then heard silence.
Is that an angel? Am I dead? Ron listened for the voice. He felt a hand on his shoulder. Startled, he opened his eyes, the light from a lamp streamed in. He squinted, his vision blurry, and dark features began to take shape before him.
“Ron,” Carol, said. “What the hell are you doing?”
Awake now, his consciousness returning, Ron looked around. He was lying on the floor, his body wedged between the bed and a wooden stereo stand he’d built.
Carol’s dark hair draped around her face as she looked down at her husband.
“What the hell happened?” Ron asked, his lip quivering, laying there in a pool of sweat and a large brush burn on his shoulder where he hit the cabinet on his way to the carpet.
“The furnace kicked on. The thump made you dive to the floor and cover your head. You kept screaming. You kept saying ‘jam’ over and over again,” Carol said.
She’d been scared the first time it happened, his scream waking her from a sound sleep. He had done this a few times in the past, but it wasn’t any less terrifying. She didn’t know what was in his mind but guessed it was about Vietnam. He never said much about it.
Ron dragged himself up, wincing when he used his bad shoulder.
“That looks like it hurts. Well, that’s what you get for throwing yourself out of bed. You took the covers with you,” Carol said, smiling. “You better not have woken the kids, though.” She was more serious now. “If they wake up, you’re dealing with them.”
“They’re fine,” Ron scoffed, irritated at her self-interest at the moment. He crawled up the side of the mattress.
His brain tried to process what had just happened. He couldn’t remember the dream, only the gut-wrenching stress that washed over him now like warm water. He wanted to go back to sleep, wake up, and pretend none of this happened. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Ron rubbed his forehead with his hand. Carol, not hearing their children stirring, took a deep breath, and focused her attention back on her husband. She sat next to him, gently massaging his sweaty back.
“What happened?” Carol asked.
“I don’t know. The only thing I remember is Sgt. Thompson.”
“He saved my life.” Ron looked at the floor, still catching his breath, trying to slow his heart rate. Slouched, with his head hanging low, Ron felt like crying, but wouldn’t in front of his wife. She was allowed to be weepy, not him. Brave men don’t show emotion, not even about something as complex as a war. That was one thing he’d learned from his father: War is what you’re supposed to do as a man. Like the Incas and Iroquois warriors used tomahawks and spears to brutally kill each other to gain the spoils and power associated with the destruction of others. His father had expressed the same ideals when he returned home from the dense forests of Europe and watched his son go to Vietnam. Once again, warriors set off to meet their fate. This time, it was in steel tanks and with .50-caliber machine guns. The killing tools advanced, but the human condition remained the same. Find a common enemy, band together, and destroy as many of them as possible.
Ron tried to shake these thoughts that made his head spin like a tractor-trailer sliding out of control on an icy road. But he was helpless to slow them down. These episodes tested his emotional capabilities. Not wanting to believe what he did was wrong’ not wanting to believe that what he did was murder. A young soldier had to kill those trying to kill him.
Ron thought of his fellow countrymen reacting to U.S. soldiers returning home, screaming and yelling at proud servicemen in Army Class A uniforms walking through Los Angeles International Airport, the main port of entry from Southeast Asia. American citizens spat and used terms like “baby killer.” There was such anger and disgust in their voices like these young men butchered Vietnamese babies wholesale and without remorse. Every single thing Ron did took a toll on his conscience, and no amount of distraction or level of normalcy could dissipate the things he’d experienced.
“I will never treat a soldier like they treated me. Do you hear me? Never. Those assholes spat on us. We were just trying to get home. That’s all. Just get home!” Ron blurted out to a surprised Carol. She sat on the bed, watching him intensely.
“You’re home now,” she whispered. “It’s all right... There is no war going on now. Nobody’s fighting. Just us occasionally.” She smiled.
Ron began to relax a little. His thoughts drifted to an assessment of what he had now. Carol was next to him, and that was important. She couldn’t fix his memories, and got irritated once in a while when awoken from a sound sleep, but doted when necessary. Three kids were asleep upstairs, and their newest addition to the family, baby David, remained asleep in a crib by the bed, thumb stuck in his mouth. He never stirred.
He read some articles on new studies being done on terms like “flashbacks” and “post-traumatic stress disorder” to describe the things happening to the soldiers returning from Vietnam. The language also applied to the growing research on Holocaust survivors, rape victims, and abused children. Ron didn’t believe any of this applied to him. Those scenarios inspired true fear beyond comprehension, whereas he went to do a job very far from home. That’s all. He found it easy to sympathize with the others but never lumped himself in with them.
“This is not a damn flashback, don’t even say that,” he barked at Carol.
She became defensive. “I didn’t say that! I never used that word. Don’t snap at me.” Carol didn’t understand the intensity that lingered even though his nightmare was over. She struggled with that part the most. She expected that her husband would be very distant and withdrawn for the next couple of days, even more than usual. His quiet demeanor could be even more stoic after an episode like this. He would pay less attention to the kids and work more in an attempt to keep distracted. She didn’t mind the extra work, a lot got done, but it made for an isolating existence.
Ron didn’t mean to snap. The stress he felt in that dream state was something his wife could never understand. She had never seen a man cut in half, smelled burned bodies, or heard someone beg for his mother as he gasped his last breaths. None of it. She was a spoiled brat from the city who had everything handed to her by her parents. Tension grew within him. Ron took a deep breath. Stop thinking like this. Don’t blame your wife’s lack of experience for what’s happening to you. He exhaled.
“I’m sorry I snapped at you,” Ron said with sincere remorse. “These dreams are crazy. I don’t enjoy scaring you. Hell, I don’t like waking up on the floor, trembling like a baby at a stupid nightmare.” He felt entirely too vulnerable at this moment and wanted to take back what he’d said.
Carol felt uncomfortable as well, struggling with serious conversations. She liked to laugh and wanted to lighten the mood between them.
“I knew I married a big scaredy-cat who throws himself on the floor in the middle of the night.” She laughed in an attempt to reassure him of her affection.
Ron looked at her. “What the hell is wrong with you?” He hissed, unfamiliar with his wife’s way of coping with things. He understood her joking, but this was not the time.
“I’m only kidding. It was a joke. You never laugh anymore,” she retorted.
“This is nothing to laugh about.” Ron laid back, his head landing on his pillow. His wife did the same. They both stared at the ceiling.
Neither one spoke for several minutes until Carol broke the silence. “What are you going to do if Keith wants to join the military? Or Doug, or Dave someday? What do you say to them?”
Ron continued staring at the ceiling. “I’d say it was a great idea. Go serve your country and do your duty. Be brave and kill as many of the enemy as you can.” Ron smirked, knowing that would be the advice he would have to give them in that situation. Be alert and kill them before they kill you. That is the simplicity of war.
Carol grimaced. “Why would you say something like that?”
“You asked, and I told you. Being a soldier is a great thing. Defending our country is a great thing. Standing up for freedom is necessary, and who better to do it than my sons?” Ron responded, supporting the military regardless of his experience. “What am I going to do, not believe in America or those who defended it? Some of the bravest people I ever met were in-country with me. For my son to serve would be an honor.”
Carol turned her head to look at Ron’s blue eyes. She studied his face for a moment. “So, do you want him diving out of bed in the middle of the night because of something he can’t get out of his head? Or if he has to kill somebody? What if he got blown up, would you support it then? Would you be honored then?” Carol was becoming emotional, picturing her babies going through any of that. It was hard enough to watch her husband struggle in the aftermath of his time overseas.
“Oh, knock it off,” Ron said with spite.
“Well, answer the questions,” Carol insisted. “Is that what you want?”
Ron, overwhelmed with processing these ideas, was frustrated that life wasn’t more straightforward. Everything has consequences. His brain was exhausted, and he didn’t want to think anymore. Knowing it would make his wife mad, the beleaguered Vietnam veteran rolled over and tried to fall back to sleep.